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Interview with Saya Woolfalk
by Lee Ann Norman

New York, Mar. 2013: Saya Woolfalk’s work in painting and drawing, video, media, and fiber arts demands that a viewer be open to suspending disbelief to image what’s possible. Her alter world—a future vision of the future—asks that we re-consider what it means to be human and how we co-exist with other life forms in the world. Through a fantastical narrative logic of science fiction, genetics, metaphysics, semiotics, and anthropology, among other subjects, Woolfalk’s work challenges us to question our perception of what is possible, what could be, and what is. In many ways, her explorations of the present, future, and the future of the future underscore the truth that our formation of reality is truly relative.

“Chimera,” Woolfalk’s first solo exhibition at Third Streaming, continues her ongoing exploration of the imaginary world of a species called The Empathics. Part plant, part human, The Empathics serve as a fictive example of the ways in which the creolization of cultures can be effective in disrupting standard notions of identity. I met with Woolfalk at Third Streaming on a cold, damp day in January to learn more about the project and its origins.

Saya Woolfalk, Excerpt: The Institute of Empathy, 2013; Courtesy the artist.

Lee Ann Norman: Can you give a little background about this immersive, fictional world you’ve made?

Saya Woolfalk: I’ve been working with these ideas and themes for about six years. This project, “The Empathics” has only been going on for four years, but before that I worked on a project called “No Place.” I worked with an anthropologist to document a fictional future utopian world of these part plant, part human hybrids who change gender and color, and just generally are in these processes of transformation. With this project, I became interested in learning what would happen if you posited a future world where people are crossing genders and crossing cultures and crossing species. What would it look like for people in the present to attempt to become that? What kinds of mini-steps are necessary to achieve this fictional future world?

The Empathics are a group of people in the present who find these bones in the woods of upstate New York. It’s all couched in this elaborate fiction, and everything is narrativized in this fictional, science-fiction way—almost like a novel. People may or may not get every part of the story through a single walk-through of an exhibition, but the project’s logics kind of build on one another.

There’s a video that tells the story of The Empathics from their perspective. That’s another important part of the work. When people talk about the crossing of cultures or alternative histories, it’s usually talked about in the third person, but this is supposed to be about people creating self-representations, and creating their own histories, their own knowledge, and their own place in self-transformation.

The Empathics are people who are trying to become like the No Placians. They find these bones, which kind of stimulate their physical and cultural transformation. So there are all these videos, and photographs of them having visions and them developing a second consciousness (which is objectified by them developing a second head). When they develop this second head, they start having visions of other worlds, which are hybridized and creolized in a combination of European, Asian, African influences, all mingled together.

Is that clear…?

LAN: Yeah, I think that’s a good, big, broad overview of this really complex—

SW: [laughter] Yeah, it’s really complicated!

LAN: —but really fascinating [world]. I like that you described it as kind of a novel, or a story. There’s a huge investment in terms of how that story develops, and then how it’s told, especially since you said it’s really important to hear the voice of these people when they’re talking about themselves. When you first started working with this story, did you always think about it as this kind of ethnographic, anthropological way of art making? I know you worked with a bonafide anthropologist later, but before that—was there a shift in the way that you would tell their story?

SW: Major, major shifts actually. I’ve been making work professionally for about ten years. My early productions were more about children’s toys and uncovering the adult content in children’s toys—sexual content, ethno-racial content, class-based systems, systems of power. In graduate school in about 2002, I met my husband, who’s an anthropologist. Through speaking with him, it really shifted the kinds of systems and structures I thought I could put in place to tell the stories that I was really interested in.

In a moment where universal truths are more and more difficult to access because cultures are so specific, and you need information about those cultures to access the specificity of those places, anthropology gives you tools to try and pull those things forward, especially if you’re constructing fictional cultures.

We moved to Brazil, and I lived in his field site—I got a Fulbright to study folkloric performance traditions. When we came back, a friend of mine (who is an anthropologist and is the ethnographer whom I continue to work with) and I started collaborating.

From about 2002 to about 2006, there was this unfolding of a process, a working method. An early video I made in 2005 called Winter Garden Hybrid Love Objects already started to use this ethnographic approach, but the shift between that video and Ethnography of No Place (2008) goes from no language, no speaking to this complete language, this narrative…this story…

Saya Woolfalk, Aerial Display (Blossoming), 2012, Fleece, wool, felt, plastic beads, plastic bones, feathers, abaca paper, glitter shoes, spandex; Courtesy of the artist.

LAN: Yeah, I’ve seen excerpts from Ethnography of No Place and it feels very specific, like: First we’ll talk about rituals, and then we’ll talk about this… It’s pretty dramatic in that way, but the tools are really helpful in making that translation or relating this [information] back to our world.

SW: I posit these things as if: Oh, yes! It’s real, it is, they are… but they are also an absurd investigation of these fantastical places, these worlds, and these possibilities, which is also about visual pleasure, and play in transformation. In [The Empathics: Chimera, 2012] there’s a person flying through this strange skywiggling. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but there is something about it that is deeply pleasurable.

LAN: Pleasure, and fantasy… It all feels very appealing in this hopeful sort of way. I’m looking at the formal qualities of the costumes and the paintings… Were you really specific in terms of the material, or the color scheme in order to convey these feelings in the work?

SW: The “No Place” project came out of living in Brazil… So from 2006 to 2008, that work looks very tropical. It seems like the place where I live affects the way that the work actualizes itself. A lot of those materials were purchased in Brazil: lots of browns, super saturated bright colors. [“The Empathics”] has come out of living predominately in the Northeast. I traveled to Japan; I didn’t go to Africa, but I started collecting African textiles…and kimono fabrics, and Indian textiles. I started collecting materials from all over the world and brought those to my studio. They didn’t necessarily make it into my work, but the colors, the textures and the patterns started to affect the way I made work. I think [“The Empathics”] is reflective of the light here. There’s a lot of white, a lot of gray. There is saturated color, but it’s a lot more muted than the color palette that I usually use. It remains hopeful, but it’s not over the top tropical.

LAN: There are various characters in this world, and there are very specific ways that they engage with us. There’s a moment in the video [Tour of the Institute of Empathy, 2013] where it talks about how when The Empathics achieve their second consciousness, they shed their skin and then they paint it, and decorate it, and they sell it to kind of fund—

SW: [laughter] Yes, their research—of course—why wouldn’t they?!

LAN: I don’t know…maybe I’m reading into things, but it made me stop and pause for a minute, like: Oh! There’s this moment where they seem to understand commerce and capitalism—our world… So they sort of turned it, where they are researching themselves—well, not researching themselves, but compiling information for us to understand them—there’s this Institute and all of these things…

SW: Oh, that’s great; I like that!

LAN: It just made me think…what is the relationship between their world and ours? Have you thought much about that? How would that work? How has that unfolded in the past?

SW: One thing that I did do recently was a performance at the Montclair Art Museum where one of the dancers I worked with dressed as this narrator Empathic. She gave a tour of the museum exhibition as if she were an Empathic giving a tour of the Museum’s reconstruction of the Institute of Empathy. She’s also an actor, so she tried to mobilize affect, like that you or I would experience in our own world. I should think about the power of what you just talked about—that puncture point... There is some sort of puncturing of the worlds, like a porous spot.

LAN: But I mean, I think it happens all the time, right? East, West, Exotic Other; whatever you don’t know. Whatever is different from you… I think we always think that maybe we know best or we have more power, so there’s this way where we may not give as much credit to whatever we are deeming Other—

SW: Mmmhmmm...

Saya Woolfalk, The Institute of Empathy, 2013, Single-channel video, 5 min. 14 sec.; Courtesy of the artist / Film maker: Rachel Lears.

LAN: —so I guess that’s why it gave me pause. The Empathics realize they have this thing that might be valued, and they’re gonna put it out there, and then use what comes back to sustain their life—and then provide information as a byproduct for these other people. I don’t know…it just makes me think about turning those relationships…that whatever we might be thinking of as unsophisticated, primitive…is really…not.

SW: Yeah, and that’s definitely what this work is about. Using a science—that’s why it’s an Institute of Empathy, right—to structure this culture that people might think of as just kind of intuitively moving through the world. It’s not, it’s actually very reasoned, logical…I’m thinking that might come into my performance, “Chimera.” (The title of the show is “Chimera” but the title of the performance I’m doing on March 7 is also “Chimera.”) I’m thinking about using systems of geometry and science [a la Ron Eglash] to talk about color blindness. It’s all very complicated! [laughter] But they’re much simpler visually than all the stuff that sort of mashes up in my head.

LAN: Context is really, really important. Without that context, you can’t make any sense, or you really struggle to understand that discrete object. But maybe because you pull from so many different cultures that we seem to know or have some familiarity with… When you look at them, yes, there is [the question], “What is this?!”, but they’re not so disorienting or intimidating that you can’t find any place for it, which I think is great. It’s recognizable, but also fresh and new since it builds on that and layers upon past information.

SW: That is kind of the way I’m trying to make these things. I start as an object maker. Even though I make stories, I’m trained as a painter and sculptor. So what I do is try to make these images look like something you already know, but they also look like a combination of different things. And you can see the original objects in them, but they’re actually not even really there—the idea that the objects become so amalgamated, combined, mixed but you can never lose the original thing that you were looking at. It’s over simplifying it but like that ceremonial headdress… I was looking at Princess Leia’s buns that Björk did—it’s actually a Native American hairstyle—and it’s all blended together and mixed in there. You see it but it’s all gone, too. [laughter] I love that! That’s how I think about my object making and my painting.

Lee Ann Norman

ArtSlant would like to thank Saya Woolfalk for her assistance in making this interview possible.

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